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A General With an Alternative Vision April 11, 2006

Posted by jaldenh in News & Views.
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By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, April 10, 2006; A15

The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America's Power and Purpose

Gen. Tony Zinni and Tony Koltz

Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages

Well into his new book, Gen. Tony Zinni lists what he thinks ought to be the nation's strategic goals. They include, among other things, keeping regions and countries stable; making unstable countries stable; and working with regional partners to address unstable conditions. For Zinni, stability is the lodestar of modern national security policy. Wresting order out of a chaotic world is the mission he sees as job number one for the U.S. government.

"The real threats do not come from military forces or violent attacks; they do not come from a nation-state or hostile non-state entity. They do not derive from an ideology (not even from a radical, West-hating, violent brand of Islam)," Zinni writes. "The real new threats come from Instability. Instability and the chaos it generates can spark large and dangerous changes anywhere in the land."

Notably absent from Zinni's list is any mention of spreading democracy and freedom, among the goals articulated recently by the White House in its National Security Strategy, often with soaring, idealistic rhetoric. The document states: "The United States possesses unprecedented — and unequaled — strength and influence in the world. Sustained by faith in the principles of liberty, and the value of a free society, this position comes with unparalleled responsibilities, obligations, and opportunity. The great strength of this nation must be used to promote a balance of power that favors freedom."

Zinni's contrast in tone and emphasis seems purposeful. With "The Battle for Peace," the retired Marine general has set out to present an alternative vision of the national interest to the one espoused by President Bush. It is a less ambitious, more incrementalist vision. If adopted by the Democrats, his dry, bureaucratic approach may lack for popular appeal. Yet might it bring about a more rational alignment of our national purpose with our fiscal and military resources? That is the implicit question raised in this slender volume by one of the nation's most prominent military voices.

Zinni is a combat veteran whose experience in Vietnam brought him three rounds from an AK-47 and a near-death experience. Before retiring, Zinni served as chief of the military's Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and South Asia, a post that brought him into direct contact with many of the region's leading political and military figures and a firsthand experience in the most challenging foreign policy questions facing the United States. He was one of a raft of former generals who endorsed Bush for president in 2000, but he has since broken with the administration over what he sees as its ill-thought-out adventurism in Iraq. Zinni was against the war before it was popular to be so.

Those hoping for an intemperate screed against Bush's policies, however, will be disappointed. Zinni writes soberly and, largely, without invective. Although he disapproves of what he considers Bush's excessive faith in military power and the imprudence of the Iraq invasion, he does not frontally attack the administration. But by the end of this book, it is clear Zinni would have us move into a radically different direction on national security matters.

Zinni believes far too little thought and attention are being paid to the management of what, as he describes it, is the most urgent issue facing the country — how to manage the problems posed by dysfunctional countries or those that are in danger of becoming dysfunctional. Those countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, are the breeding grounds for the radicals and terrorists who hate the United States and want to attack us.

Yet as Zinni tells it, we have expertise in only one tool — military force — for dealing with these countries, and we too often use our power in ways that alienate other societies. He offers a variety of proposals to better organize U.S. agencies to respond to droughts, famines, civil wars and other sources of instability before they metastasize into situations that require military force. He wants an interdepartmental team drawn from relevant agencies to watch for tensions and other signs of instability and a deployable force of civilians to handle recovery and reconstruction in war zones.

This is not an easy book to read. Even with the help of a professional writer, there is a fair amount of jargon in here, and the structure of the book is a bit mysterious. Zinni veers between interesting accounts of his involvement in various crises — such as the effort to aid the Iraqi Kurds after the Persian Gulf War — and his analysis of the shortcomings in U.S. grand strategy and how we are organized to deal with the threats of the 21st century. It is hard to judge whether his proposals would amount to more than a reshuffling of the bureaucratic deck.

Still, Zinni is an interesting man, and he has a lot of interesting things to say about the dangers of pursuing our current course in foreign policy. He is a distinctly non-ideological man in an era when ideology is running rampant both home and abroad. He seems to be saying that the world is full of problems that can be better managed if only we had more competent U.S. leadership, different bureaucracies and less idealism from our leaders. The premise is debatable, but the next president may decide to give it a go.

Abramowitz is the national editor of The Washington Post.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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